Thursday 22 August 2019

Fiona O'Connell: 'Building castles in the air is the real thing'

Lay of the Land

'With time running out before school starts again, let children play and build castles in the air' (stock photo)
'With time running out before school starts again, let children play and build castles in the air' (stock photo)

Fiona O'Connell

Children are carefree on these late summer days. I wonder if they still play a game that was popular when I was growing up, where the first to climb a designated mound chants 'I'm the king of the castle, get down, you dirty rascal!'

For castles may now largely belong in fairy tales - but with approximately 30,000 of them scattered across this country, they are, thankfully, a common sight. Though many in the west could be nicknamed castle apple cores, for they look like a bite-sized remnant of that equally common fruit.

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Apparently that was no accident, as Cromwell deliberately left a small part of the Celtic castles that he destroyed, to act as a warning to other Irish warriors. Time, as well as tyrants, has also taken its toll to humble these once haughty households. I saw one recently cordoned off in the middle of a golf course, while another currently for sale is surrounded by new builds of much the same size, if not bigger.

It's different in this formerly Norman neck of the woods, where the castles are in relatively good nick. One that I regularly pass is especially striking, as it is attached to a farmhouse and outbuildings, connecting the passing centuries.

Though this particular pile of stones, which is called Kilbline Castle, is not just the real thing when it comes to standing the test of time. As I discovered when I happened upon it in Robert O'Byrne's Ruins Of Ireland.

It's a sort of karmic tale of castles, where what goes around comes around. It begins with a farewell, with Daniel and Hannah Candler emigrating to the American continent in 1735, where they eventually settled in Virginia. Fast forward to 1888, when their great-great-great-grandson, entrepreneur Asa Griggs Candler made the lucrative decision to buy the formula for Coca-Cola. Then take a step back, literally, to his not so fantastic forebear William Candler. He is said to have served as an officer in Cromwell's army that reduced so many of our castles to ruins. Candler was rewarded for his part in their downfall with a promotion and a sizeable plot, including the land on which Kilbline Castle stands. At some point, the farmhouse and single-storey structure were added. But even if "all now stands empty", as O'Byrne poignantly concludes, it is remarkable that Kilbline Castle was occupied until just a few decades ago.

Because being a typical Irish tower house meant it was not remotely as luxurious as it looked. As Spaniard Francisco de Cuellar wrote in 1588: "The Irish have no furniture and sleep on the ground, on a bed of rushes, wet with rain and stiff with frost."

Proving that we were a hardy lot who did not live in ivory towers, even if we had lofty ideals that inspired our fighting spirit. So with time running out before school starts again, let children play and build castles in the air. That, when they grow up, will help guide them.

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